networks in expanding cultural spaces VI

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The Chudnovsky solution finds the Unicorn problem in the first instance by leveraging the Chudnovsky narrative. Word of mouth builds until it becomes word on page.

But eventually we move from cultural matters to quasi economic ones and now the logic of transmission changes. Once the Chudnovsky brothers hit the pages of The New Yorker, they become a token in a larger exchange system. A real estate magnate steps up and invests in them. With a gift of $400,000, he endows an institute for the brothers and so becomes, in our post Medici era, their patron. In return for this investment, the magnate now has a capital of some value.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not belittling the beneficent effects of the institute. The magnate’s gift supported two worthy mathematicians and some interesting math. There is a latter day inclination to suppose that generosity is corrupted by additional motives and “returns on the dollar.” This was almost precisely the Renaissance bargain and anyone who believes public gestures must be utterly selfless is living on the wrong planet. (Someone get the shuttle ready.)

In NECS III, I noted:

In return, he got at least at least one mention in The New Yorker, a philanthropic project that differentiated him from other real estate magnets (of whom there are, I believe, several in NYC), elevated standing in the social world of NYC, a claim to “getting” and supporting what is peculiarly New York about New York. (…)

In sum, the magnate converted $400,000 into a pretty substantial body of social and cultural capital. (…)

At the very least, the investment brought him: more profile, more invitations, broader social access, higher social access, and finally a larger business network. This, in turn, gives him access to more and loftier real estate deals. This, in turn, will improve the financial resources with which he can fund subsequent philanthropic “gestures” that the spiral may continue upward.

The real estate magnate even started to loan the Chudnovsky brother capital out. A friend of his, the fund manager, paraded the brothers at a party. Now the fund manager is using capital to make a social capital of his own, and, in return, he pays the magnate the “interest” of acknowledgement.

This is an interesting, perhaps unexpected, twist to the story. It turns out that the fund manager is also leveraging other, more conventional, sources of social capital. He is on the board at the MET. Why does he bother with the kind of capital the Chudnovsky brothers make available. The anthropological brow furrows. Hmmm.

And it’s hear that we are obliged to note that New York City has its own quite catholic idea of what counts as interesting and buzz worthy. Indeed this is a city known for the intensive cultivation of difference and then silo-bursting moments of intersection.

Tom Wolfe gave us one moment here with his account of Leonard Bernstein holding a soiree for the representatives of the Black Panthers. It is as if the city, even its capital managers, have an artist’s interesting in mixing media, genres, and social types. Bernstein was high culture, with moments of modern and pop culture, and here he was feting revolutionaries! How very daring, how very New York.

Who knows, maybe this is a city status strategy. After all, if we manage to work into conversation the fact that we just had lunch with someone who sits on the board of the MET, it’s kind of obvious and a little crass. Meta-pragmatically, we are playing a small status chip and our conversational partner is entitled to say, to themselves, “oh, please, just spare me.” But it’s much more interesting to say, “You will never guess who was at the [MET] lunch, these most marvelously Russian mathematicians. Brothers!” This story is just entertaining enough to move the listener to grant our bid for status.

So the narrative angle pops up again! It’s there at the beginning, to get the solution launched, and it’s there at the end, to see to the final dissemination of the meme.

But here’s the thing that makes this part of the story as troubling as the first. You would have to trouble persuading me that fund managers in other American cities sit on the boards of prestigious cultural institutions. It would be surprising, though, if they were keen to invite Russian mathematicians for exhibition. I just don’t think this happens in Tulsa or New Orleans or even Los Angeles. Furthermore, I think it is improbable that a real estate magnate from another city would see value in the Chudnovsky brother “investment.” In most American cities, silos stay siloed. Cross over between domains doesn’t happen.

LA magazine might pick up the story about ‘two crazy Russians” but chances are it would not. (And that’s because in LA, the Chudnovsky brothers would look more Russian and more crazy, whereas in New York…well, in New York, they look “a lot like the rest of us, only more interesting.”) And even LA magazine coverage does not set the rest of our New York chain in train.

My point? If contemporary culture is a place of ever greater intensification, where the differences become more different and the absolute culture space continues to expand, solutions will remain estranged from solutions unless and until narrative force or the pursuit of social capital drives stories up out of their obscure little nocks and crannies out into the broader world where they may be embraced by someone who needs them. Last time, we speculated that the stories may now be beginning to fail us and, if this post is accurate, it may be true that social capital drivers are, outside of New York City, insufficiently active, too.

Now the question is this: the expansion of cultural spaces may be outrunning the traditional sources and forces of dissemination. Now it falls to the new media to take up the diffusion task and see to the intersection of new problems and solutions.

Already we have seen this new channels help like find like. It is also good at helping unlike find like. But surely really “unlike” almost never finds really “unlike.” This is another way of sayng there are solutions out there for our problems but we cannot begin to imagine the key words that would google them in for us. Oh, the search engines will get better. We will get ever more Boolean in our search skills. But all the while the world will encourage more difference. It is finally a little like trying to get a rocket ship to the edge of an expanding universe. You can get better but you can never win. We are living Zeno’s paradox…or something like it.

But, hey, that’s just the pessimism talkin’.

One thought on “networks in expanding cultural spaces VI

  1. Rockster

    Bravo. Loved every bit of the series.

    Here’s an interesting thing to note… I’ve been involved in cultural policy development for a couple of years, and am now heading up a culture development agency in a Canadian city. I’d love to have a chat sometime about the implications of about 100 or so strands of your analysis that I see being potentially relevant to our work.

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